Francistown’s 1st HIV/AIDS Civil-Society Organization Unification Forum

My first year in Botswana was spent soaking it all in. Working in Francistown, I’ve met and collaborated with people from different HIV/AIDS organizations who all have different perspectives on what the city needs the most. Throughout my time here I listened and observed, trying to pinpoint exactly what it was that I would do to contribute. As with most PCVs I feel I contribute in small ways on a semi-regular basis, and lately I’ve been a part of some bigger initiatives, but I also wanted to do something new and substantial that would carry on after I left – something that wasn’t arbitrary but would truly benefit the system and community, and something that I felt would be best started by a PCV with my background.

Today I began what I believe is that contribution, and I’m joined by several other PCVs in Botswana also putting together some larger-scale projects. My friend and Bots 9 PCV Jen Murphy, for instance, assessed that her community needed a space for children to grow and play safely, so she got her community together and is in the process of completing a huge playground. Other Bots 9 PCV friends, Sydney Lambson, Lucie Kuhlmann and Salewa Oroyelaran, are working together to include even more PCVs (i’m involved – facilitating and designing T-shirts!) to bring 40 young girls aged 13-15 to a four-day GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp in Nata, Botswana – a huge initiative that will teach young girls how to respect their bodies and lead healthy, strong lives.

My contribution has to do with unifying and organizing the Francistown HIV/AIDS related Civil-Society Organizations (CSOs). Over the past year and a half it’s come to my attention that Francistown has over twenty CSOs spread out all over town. These CSOs provide varied services including counseling, youth and sportstheater, and those that are faith-based. They are, however, all pooled together to receive a limited (and shrinking) amount of government and donor funds with which they use to implement their activities. Problems arise when they don’t know which organizations are working on what and where.

As a result, CSOs create redundant and overlapping programming, which wastes time and money and has a negative impact on HIV efforts within the community. In addition, many CSOs don’t know this but are set back from the same lack of skill sets.

Other districts have CSO Meetings where they attempt to address these issues, but with Francistown being a relatively large city in Botswana, bringing this meeting together here would pose a challenge and require focusing on the city’s distinctive needs. I became interested to see what could be done.

I wanted to create a quarterly CSO Unification forum that would focus on the following goals:

  • Unify the organizations so that each one knows which is working on what and where (via a mapping exercise)
  • Receive feedback from organizations on what skill sets they’re lacking so that we may conduct one-on-one or group trainings
  • Bring in members of the community (i.e. doctors to educate on HIV, entrepreneurs to advertise potential relevant business opportunities, government department representatives such as The Department of Youth, etc.) to explain how the CSOs might best work with them
  • Allow the CSO members to learn from each others’ experiences through open feedback
  • Collectively provide feedback from the CSO committee to the higher level of programming in the District

So in May I traveled to Selibi-Phikwe, a large village about 1.5 bus-hours South of Francistown, to benchmark their CSO Forum. About 15 members from varying CSOs throughout the village sat together in a conference room, all with their laptops, and took turns reading aloud their quarterly reports. I loved how freely members gave feedback and how they all seemed open to collaboration. They acted like one big team.

This benchmark meeting made me determined to bring it to Francistown, and after throwing the idea around to different CSO members, everyone independently said it would be a much needed contribution that would really benefit the district.

Bringing people together for such a new kind of gathering wasn’t exactly easy. Due to colliding and hectic schedules we had to reschedule a few times. Putting it off initially seemed detrimental, but surprisingly made people excited and anxious for the meeting to happen. With much support from the DAC office, I finally held the first meeting this morning in a hard-to-find but pretty swank conference room within our huge office building.

I wanted to be over-the-top prepared for this first meeting to show the attendants that the endeavor is serious and essential.  I prepared an agenda, a PowerPoint presentation introducing this type of gathering and explaining why it’s so important, developed and presented a reporting tool for them to fill out each time they attended the meeting, created a survey of technical knowledge questions and opportunities to give ideas and suggestions, and, of course, had tea and biscuits served at the end of the meeting.

Wrapping up and enjoying tea at the conclusion of the 1st Francistown CSO Forum

My plan was to chair the first meeting and get it off the ground, and then at the meeting have the group select a Chair, Vice Chair, and Secretary to work with a DAC Office member in preparing for the next one. This is a quarterly meeting, so the next meeting won’t be until January. I’m leaving in June so I only have a few quarters to ensure they won’t rely on me to keep it going. Though the attendance just barely reached a quorum, the group did elect a committee. After the meeting the new Chair assured us that once the news went around about how great this meeting was then those who were absent would make sure to attend next time.

And it really did feel great. The feedback given about the importance of this meeting was reassuring. One member of a youth counseling organization said, “if we are not united then we are able to be exploited at the end of the day,” and went on to say, “if we speak as one district like this we will win this battle.” In addition to praise, members already started to feel comfortable exchanging feedback about how to shape the committee and make it work best. This is what I wanted, and I could tell that it would not be difficult to ensure the Francistown CSO Forum’s sustainability. I reiterated during my PowerPoint that the CSO Forum was theirs to take hold of and make their own, and that the more effort put into it (with the surveys and reporting, etc) the more they would collectively and individually receive back.

So, for now I’ll serve on the committee as sort of a dormant official, meeting with the Chair, Vice Chair, and Secretary to help steer them in the right direction. I will most likely do this with another DAC Office member, since a DAC Office member will hold this particular spot on the committee indefinitely.

More later as it progresses…

Bed, Protected

The temperature’s become exceedingly hot and the mosquitoes are starting to seek me out for a tasty midnight snack. A few weeks ago I tried to jump the gun and hang my net early when I realized that, ha ha, when I stand on my bed I’m too short to reach the little loop at the top of my ceiling.  Adorable, right?! Wrong again! I’d asked a couple of taller friends to hang it for me when they were over but they forgot (nbd, guys), and so tonight I had the awesome idea that  I should place my computer chair on my bed and stand wobble on it to reach the little loop. Wise or not (probably not), I got it hung!

Also, please note the blanket at the end of the bed is strictly just for show, and if it touches me at all it will be violently kicked off in my sleep before the nights end.

Work

Like a friend and fellow volunteer once said to me, many people leave well paying, horribly lit cubicle jobs to join the Peace Corps, and are disappointed when they arrive to the same fluorescent environment in a foreign country. People don’t join the Peace Corps to become “Cube Dwellers.”

That’s why my job is new. Revamped. New to me, new to Peace Corps, and new to the District AIDS Office where I work. Previously called the “District AIDS Coordinator,” Peace Corps changed the position because A) each District AIDS Office already employs its own District AIDS Coordinator (they head the department) and B) the volunteers in this position used to spend every waking moment inside their office.

Now called the District Community Liaison (sexy, no?), this position needs to be broken-in like a new leather loafer. As one of its first occupants, I’ve been attempting to set precedents and hold my ground so I can defend the main difference between the two positions – that I am to spend half of my time in the office and half of my time out in the community.  From the beginning I knew I had to set the right example so coworkers wouldn’t assume the new PCV is just a slacker.

I arrive at work at 7:30 sharp each morning, dressed in the best PCV work clothes I can muster (ha). On the surface, the DAC Office in FTown is similar to a typical office in America.  I encounter the usual office chatter, people sitting at desks typing on computers, and coworkers calling each other on their respective phone extensions. Of course, the screaming difference being that most of this is done in Setswana. For half the day I attend office meetings, read materials on the current AIDS situation in the district and country, and plan my community work. I always eat lunch at home, and for the other half I venture out into the community. To keep me focused, I’ve taken the list of  ~80 organizations in connection with the District AIDS Office – the NGOs, churches, clinics and other HIV/AIDS affiliated organizations in the community – and walk to four or five of them a week to meet their leaders and become familiar with the layout of the city.

So far it’s worked out splendidly. People are pleasantly surprised to meet me, especially knowing I’m taking time out of my day to introduce myself to them.

The other part of my first three-month plan is to compile all of that contact information and make a public listing on Google Maps.  I want to make one website that will direct people to a map and listing of all of the HIV/AIDS services in the area. The internet is catching on in Botswana, and especially in FTown. All of the corresponding organizations could use it as a referral, and though many people still don’t have internet in their homes, they do go to internet cafés. With this one site people could easily and anonymously get the HIV/AIDS information or counseling they are looking for.

The position will shift a lot in the next two years, and I’ll have more goals as soon as I find my footing (which, in this city, could take a while), but at least a precedent will be set and people will know more why I’m here.